I teach a course on new product innovation for MBA students, and one of the points I try to drive home is that any successful product is going to need to meet the needs or desires of a particular customer base.

That seems obvious. Right? But you’d be surprised how quickly that information fades from the minds of not only students, but well-seasoned product developers.

Last semester, shortly after driving this point home, my students started down a road of brainstorming new matcha green tea-flavored products. Several of them were regular Whole Foods shoppers. I had to remind them that the majority of grocery shoppers don’t go to high-end stores, and their own flavor preferences might not fit into the broader market.

This happens because we have a human tendency to think about the products that we would like to have ourselves. If you are similar to the people you’re selling to, that may not be a problem. But we often don’t even realize that our own experiences may put us in certain niches into which the majority of people don’t fit.

Knowing your customer is critical, but I’ve found that suggesting that to companies can cause them to balk at what they perceive will be a big expense. These days, however, it’s easier than ever to gather high-quality customer data that will better inform those product development meetings. The key is to learn from a few people in context.

That is, if we are interested in developing a new breakfast product, for example, we need to have some in-depth knowledge about our customers’ morning routines. We should watch them prep themselves for work or get the kids ready for school and ask about the frustrations they encounter during those tasks. We need to ask in-depth questions about the types of products they and their families enjoy and what might make getting a nutritious meal down before heading out the door a little easier.

Recommended Reading

There are several agile and inexpensive research tools that can connect companies with this information, including UserTesting, dScout and Digsite. Customers who collaborate on these platforms will often keep diaries about their activities, upload videos of their routines or connect with a company via videoconferencing to answer in-depth questions or allow for observations.

Doing this with a dozen or so people from your customer base is often enough to drill down and really understand their needs, and it might cost just a few thousand dollars. That’s not nothing, but it’s not the tens of thousands of dollars or more companies used to think it would cost to gather this kind of data.

After learning from your customers, it’s time to ideate, build prototypes, test them and refine the product. Repeat as necessary. These quick, user-centered cycles get you closer and closer to new products and services that people might need and be willing to buy.

Arthur Middlebrooks is a clinical professor of marketing and executive director of the Kilts Center for Marketing at Chicago Booth.

This column is part of the Chicago Booth Insights series, a partnership with Crain’s Chicago Business, in which Booth faculty offer advice for small businesses and entrepreneurs on the basis of their research.

More from Chicago Booth Review

Related Topics

More from Chicago Booth

Related Topics

Your Privacy
We want to demonstrate our commitment to your privacy. Please review Chicago Booth's privacy notice, which provides information explaining how and why we collect particular information when you visit our website.